How One Fish is Fighting Malnutrition

Written by Lizzy McCormack

Not having enough food is a major factor affecting the retention of Cambodian students in schools. Free To Shine’s agriculture project provides our girls and their families with seeds to grow vegetable gardens, and for most girls on our program, this provides adequate supplementary nutrition. However, some of our families are unable to take advantage of their seeds because they cannot grow the thriving gardens that they so desperately need.


Take Sreyleak* for example. Her house is built on low-lying land which, whenever it rains, floods and drowns her garden. Or Chantrea* whose father often drinks too much alcohol and becomes so destructive that he has destroyed the family garden on more than one occasion.Common problems preventing our girls from growing seeds are:

  • Weather – some families live in flood prone areas; others live in areas where for more than half the year, there is insufficient water for farming. An unlucky few have land which for half the year is too dry, and the other half, becomes flooded.
  • Lack of land – families living on small plots of land sometimes don’t have the space to plant seeds.
  • Animals – if the garden is not properly fenced, cows or chickens can destroy a garden in a matter of minutes.
  • Time – girls who live alone, or who have parent who works extremely long hours, do not always have the time to grow their seeds.
  • Poor soil quality – some areas simply won’t grow high yielding crops.

Any combination of the above ensures that these families won’t have enough food. In a day all they might have to eat is a bowl of white rice, with a small piece of meat or a single vegetable divided among the entire family. It is not uncommon for a whole family to share a single egg as their protein source. Lack of nutrition will often result in a girl having difficulties concentrating in school, and for those who are already several years behind, a bad score or the school’s decision to keep her back a grade can easily lead into her stopping school altogether.

Malnutrition is a major issue in Cambodia, with 56.9% of children under the age of five suffering from anemia. Anemia is a condition that develops when your blood lacks enough healthy red blood cells (or haemoglobin). The leading cause of anaemia is iron deficiency, resulting in your organs not getting enough oxygen. When a person is iron deficient they can have pale skin, fatigue, shortness of breath, dizziness, brittle nails and hair, and difficulty concentrating.Anaemia affects how people function in every area of their life, including work, school, and social activities, which in turn limits their ability to generate income and afford iron-rich food, health care, and school fees. For children and adolescents, anaemia can result in delayed cognitive development and limitations in intellectual development. Thus, continuing the vicious cycle of poverty by constraining the social and economic development of Cambodia.In 2017 Free To Shine began a new project, providing ‘Lucky Iron Fish’ to every girl on our program who has poor nutrition and/or limited opportunity to grow a vegetables garden. By doing so, we hope to improve the nutrition of entire families, and give our girls every opportunity to excel at their education without being held back by ongoing health issues.

To ensure that our Khmer team trust the ‘Lucky Iron Fish’ and can give clear instructions for its use it to our families, three staff have been given their own ‘Lucky Iron Fish’ to trial at home, as well as a comprehensive lesson on its history and purpose.If you would like to give a girl and her family every opportunity to break the cycle of poverty, you can provide them with a Lucky Iron Fish here.*Names have been changed.